Cyrano

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By Philip Pearce

IT’S INTERESTING the way that PacRep’s current season takes two central heroes of early 20th century European drama, Peter Pan and Cyrano de Bergerac, and gives them each a new look. Plus the frank theatricality of a handful of actors playing a whole lot of the characters involved in the stories of their lives.

In the June/July production of Peter and the Starcatcher twelve actors played more than 30 roles in a swashbuckling prequel to the August/July musical version of Peter Pan.

Now there’s an exciting new version of Cyrano, which tells the well-loved tale but pares nearly 50 speaking roles down to 27 to be played by a cast of nine.

When you think about it, Peter and Cyrano are cut from the same mold. Both are chock full of swaggering self-confidence, both are supernaturally brilliant swordsmen, both are sworn enemies of the social status quo. “I want,” Cyrano explains at one point, “to reduce the number of bows I have to make in a day.” Peter doesn’t want to grow up and have to make that kind of decision in the first place.

Like many another theater addict of my generation, I’ve always loved Rostand’s three hour, five-act marathon of moonlit romance, spontaneous poetry and dashing swordplay. But Michael Hollinger’s slick new translation and the fresh two-act adaptation of the text he shares with Aaron Posner make for a fast-paced and thoroughly satisfying evening in the Outdoor Forest Theater.

In a recent interview, Hollinger notes that the original script’s world of 17th century Paris isn’t exactly familiar territory to 21st century audiences. “It was important to me that the play speak to us, here and now, and therefore I made myself the litmus test of what would be accessible, immediate, funny, poignant, and so on.”

So there’s little left of Rostand’s blank verse or the sections of social comment on French society of the 1600’s. What comes across vividly is the central ironic dilemma of a man with a face so unsightly he can only use his supreme genius for poetic love talk to push his lady love into the arms of a handsome but tongue-tied rival.

Pacific Rep executive director Stephen Moorer is an active, touching and consistently funny Cyrano. He mines every vein of wit in the new script and catches most of the underlying pathos without ever slipping into the lilting Gielgud/Burton attitude and voice adopted by some Cyranos I’ve seen. His dying attack against social convention and phony officialdom is no reflective elegy, it’s a ruthless sword fight to the death.

This new version makes it easier to explore character motivations and navigate some of the finer points of 17th century French civic and military life by expanding the role of Le Bret. He’s no longer just Cyrano’s trusty military buddy; he’s a wise narrator who steps out of the action and into a spotlight to explain things directly to us ticket holders. It works admirably. Unlike Rostand’s audience but just like Shakespeare’s, we’ve reached a point where we like it when somebody pauses the story and comments on what’s going on. As always, Jeffrey T Heyer is clear and believable in the role.

The remainder of the players are busy and excellent, moving nimbly through two or three roles apiece. Jennifer Le Blanc is a beautiful, passionate Roxane, so swept up in a duet of Cyrano’s poetry and Gascon-cadet Christian de Neuvillette’s good looks that it takes her fourteen years to discover she’s been in love with the soul of one and only the body of the other.

Justin Gordon is an appealing Christian, a fresh military recruit who’s closely in touch with his feelings but clueless in expressing them. I liked his last-minute wide-eyed explosion of terror at having to woo the lovely Roxane, even coached by the eloquent Cyrano.

D Scott McQuiston is a bubbly and comically endearing Ragueneau, a pastry chef and would-be poet, who manages (in the interest of trimming down cast size) to shout protests at his wife for wrapping her pastries in the texts of his verses without her ever actually appearing on stage.

A small and energetic Andrew Mazer is convincingly tipsy as a bibulous cadet named Ligniere.  Lewis Rhames is willowy and comically inept as a plumed Parisian popinjay named De Valvert, one of a string of candidates for the hand of the fair Roxane. More purposeful and pompous is Michael Storm as another suitor, De Guiche, commander of Cyrano and Christian’s Gascon battalion. The versatile and surprising Garland Thompson moves effortlessly through five different roles, most notably in drag as Roxane’s busybody and sweet-toothed duenna and then in Rosary and wimple as the chatty, broom-wielding Sister Marthe.

Kenneth Kelleher’s direction manages, again and again, to make the nine-member cast look and act like a big crowd. My favorite segment of Act 1 is a sequence that doesn’t even happen in the old Rostand version. Cyrano, high and happy at some fond attention from his beloved Roxane, learns that a hundred sword-wielding thugs are planning a midnight ambush at the Porte de Nesle. He vows to bare his sword and carve them up, single handedly, one by one. Rostand’s script simply reports his success after the fact. Kelleher, Moorer and fight director Justin Gordon show it happening in a shadowy ballet of flashing swordplay which proves that perfectly timed farce can be both hilarious and beautiful.

I loved the show, but I had minor problems with the set design. The big outdoor theater stage allows for a lot of depth and width. But is the backstage area so limited that ingredients of Patrick McEvoy’s settings need to be stored in plain view instead of waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when required? The big quarter moon awaited its appearance in the balcony/garden scene from a position way upstage. And an unchanging background of blue-green wooden fretwork units gave a sense of clutter.

That said, it’s a must see, but take plenty of coats and blankets. It continues through October 15th.

 

 

Weekly Magazine

NEW THIS WEEK

CRISTIAN MAČELARU & pianist Simon Trpčeski with the National Orchestra of France in a live online concert from Paris, Thursday, 11am. JAZZ FLUTE KENNY STAHL performs Thursday evening from St Ignatius Parish in San Francisco. “SAME AS IT EVER WAS” set of three plays in one, Friday & Saturday. DIVINE QUANTUM ELDERS’ Consciousness Vaccine Friday from UC Santa Cruz. COMPOSERS IN CONVERSATION from Cabrillo Festival: Wynton Marsalis and Tan Dun join Cristian Mačelaru online, Saturday at 11am. RAY OBIEDO QUINTET from Kuumbwa Jazz on Monday. FOR DETAILS AND LINKS, CLICK HERE

NEW JAZZ FESTIVAL FROM SAN JOSE

SAN JOSE JAZZ inaugural edition, New Works Festival, four nights of streamed concerts by 12 artists, April 30 through May 8, from their popup venue, the Break Room. Click HERE   

MUSIC@MENLO ANNOUNCES FOR 2021

JULY 16-AUGUST 1, performing in Menlo School’s new Spieker Center for the Arts, live and online. Guest artists pictured. To read the season brochure, “Gather,” click HERE    

TIM RAYBORN’S ‘VOICES OF THE ANCIENTS’

MUSICIAN/STORYTELLER took the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival back to the first millennium AD for an extravagant tour of cultures much older than most lovers of early music dare to go. For nearly ninety minutes Rayborn played lyres, drums, percussive rattles and flutes of wood and bone. Some of his stories were so embedded in their original languages as to be virtually incomprehensible, but delivered with such force of personality as to easily convey the urgency of their message. He sang some of his stories and also quoted from Odin in English translated from old Norse. Festival founder Linda Burman-Hall, insatiably curious as ever, peppered Rayborn with questions during the Q&A interviews. While this was the final concert of the current season, the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival has several post-season events yet to go. SM

RACHMANINOFF’S MONSTER CADENZA

FROM the Third Piano Concerto, as ‘rendered’ by ten great virtuosos.

BALLET RACISM IN BERLIN PUNISHED

CHLOÉ LOPES GOMEZ filed a racism complaint last year. She said that a ballet teacher had told her to apply white powder for Swan Lake, said that she had been hired only because she was black, and told a colleague that “she thought it had been a mistake to hire me because a black woman spoils the aesthetics.” She now has a new contract. Click HERE 

HOW JAZZ MUSICIANS REMEMBER CHICK COREA

NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN yet he remains impossible to ignore. Click HERE   

THE HYPERTRAGIC NOTCH

SPARKS VOL II consists of eight short works—five to nine minutes in duration—for string players from the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra by eight composers not previously known to me. And it selfishly stays that way. While Navona Records provides program notes, all but one written by its composer, it remains no more than a guess that each is likely American and that all were likely composed since 2000. (Even an independent search soon turns into a snipe hunt.) The composers, in order of their appearance, are Dave Dexter, William C White, Simon Andrews, Rain Worthington, Allen Brings, John A Carollo, John Franek and Jeff Mangels. (Guess which one is female.) Some pieces dance, others are darkly moody while still others express deep, personal feelings. Dexter’s Hiraeth—a Welsh word for homesickness—catches the nostalgic yearning heard in Vaughan Williams’ Thomas Tallis Fantasia. Franek’s Torso, featuring four solo violins, speaks to his ‘Anxiety disorder.’ Bottom line, however, is that each of these pieces is eminently listenable and well performed; each leaves its own allure to come listen again. Sharing conducting duties are Stanislav Vavřínek and Jiří Petrdlik. SM   

DEATH HAS LONG BEEN a central subject of the arts, resulting in “the most exalted and inexhaustible expression,” as the pianist Stephen Hough writes in the liner notes to “Vida Breve” CD. Hough’s bona fides have long since stood the test of time. (He’s one of the ten playing the solo cadenza from Rachminoff’s Third Concerto, referenced above.) Most of the pieces on this new Hyperion release make some sort of reference to death. (Chopin’s Sonata in B flat Minor is famous for its funeral march.) JS Bach’s violin Chaconne has long been associated with the death of the composer’s first wife. Unfortunately, Hough chose to open his program with Ferruccio Busoni’s trashy treatment of it. (Better to have availed Brahms’ far more reverential left-hand version.) Liszt, the go-to composer for death, is represented by his Funérailles (from his Poetic and Religious Harmonies) and the diabolical Bagatelle Without Tonality. Busoni returns with his Chamber-Fantasy after Carmen and last on the disc Gounod’s schmaltzy “Ave Maria” derived from the First Prelude in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. That leaves the pentatonic Korean folk song Arirang in Hough’s own arrangement and Hough’s own original 10-minute Piano Sonata No. 4, Vida Breve, frankly one of the most interesting pieces on the disc. SM

THE MUSICAL HISTORY OF LIFE ON EARTH

A BOOK REVIEW. Spoiler alert: it begins with the note E. Click HERE  

FAREWELL CHRISTA LUDWIG

FABULOUS GERMAN MEZZO died Saturday at 93. Making her debut in 1946, she sang for 30 seasons at the Vienna Opera and was a regular at the Met. Although she was known for giving no ground in arguments with conductors, Leonard Bernstein adored her, as did many others.

FRESH REVIEW

HOWARD BURNHAM In Love with Shakespeare. Click HERE  

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: @PerfArtsMtyBay

Scott MacClelland, editor; Rebecca CR Brooks, associate editor

 

 

In Love With Shakespeare

By Philip Pearce

IN LOVE WITH SHAKESPEARE, Howard Burnham’s tribute to Will of Stratford on his 457th birthday, is a total delight. The actor doesn’t take on the persona of his subject, he offers a more or less chronological parade of the sages, the pundits, the pedants, the kooks, the “improvers” and the appreciators who spoke and wrote about this famous April 23 birthday boy.  

The performance starts with an invitation to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” via the gangster duet from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and it’s all playful fun and informed insight from there to the closing credits.    

There’s a well-earned vote of thanks to Shakespearean colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, without whose dogged determination to collect and collate a messy mountain of scripts and scraps and production notes into a First Folio we wouldn’t have had much if any Shakespeare to read, perform or delight in.

The new show’s action covers generous tributes from devoted contemporaries like Ben Jonson and brickbats from disgruntled rivals like Robert Greene, renowned only for labeling Shakespeare a fly-by-night “Upstart crow” and a pretentious “Shake-scene.”  

In the century after the first folio Will’s scripts were “improved” by busybody managements and players. They fussed at the raw passion and bleak endings of the major tragedies, which they doctored to meet the highfalutin sensibilities of 18th century audiences. In Nahun Tate’s bowdlerized King Lear the storm-battered monarch survives, regains his kingdom, turns it over to Edgar’s bride Cordelia, who claps her hands and gushes, “Cordelia then shall be queen!”

Nineteenth-century audiences favored big scenic effects and a lot of heavy-breathing stage emotion. Reacting to a high powered performance of Antony and Cleopatra, a matronly patron remarked on the differences in queenly behavior between Egypt’s serpent of the Nile (played by Sarah Bernhardt, if I got it right) and Britain’s own dear Queen Victoria.   

Along the way, there are notes and commentary on Shakespeare jubilee and centenary celebrations, notably 18th century superstar David Garrick’s big weekend of theater, speeches, parades and banquets at Stratford upon Avon. Burnham is at his comic best in an almost endless recitation of banquet toasts to everyone and everything from Shakespeare’s poetic muse to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which he offers in a rising tide of drunkenness.   

This first and most ill-fated of Shakespeare Festivals was famous for being deluged by a rainstorm that caused the Avon to burst its banks and a steady stream of ticket-holders to unfurl their brollies and make an early departure. 

The joy of Burnham’s wide canvas of personalities and viewpoints lies in the way it allows him to open a theatrical costume trunk of genders, ages, attitudes and dialects. Close your eyes as he sings “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and you’ll swear you’re listening to William Bendix. He spotlights the truths and the pretense and he picks up the ironies and nonsense along the way. He even creates a believable insect voice for the cockroach Archy of Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitobel exchanging Shakespearean chitchat with a long-in-the-tooth parrot who claims to have been a contemporary of Will and Burbage, Ben and Christopher and the rest of the Elizabethan Southbank brotherhood. 

There’s a nice reprise of the 1960s Beyond the Fringe send-up of those endless and incomprehensible lists of supporting cast karistocrats (“What, Exeter!” “Speak worthy Sussex and Pontefract!”) that slow down any performance of the history plays.

The show closes with another well deserved tribute, this to American actor Sam Wanamaker (pictured), who, as a refugee of the McCarthy debacle, emigrated to London, where he worked tirelessly to build a new Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank but died just months before his dream was realized. The first words spoken from the stage of the new Globe came from Wanamaker’s daughter Zoe in the role of Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention!”

In Love with Shakespeare is a treat. Catch it if you love Shakespeare—or if you want to learn to love him.